EU stands by its data privacy rules in response to COVID-19

Anne Bucher, Director General of Commission's DG Health and Food Safety, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides and Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton (from left to right) [EC]

Europe cannot win the fight against the coronavirus without digital technologies, the European Commission said in a video call with EU-27 health ministers on Monday (27 April). But this must not come at the expense of EU data protection rules, which must remain a “global gold standard”.

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides invited ministers, representatives from EU health agencies and her colleagues Thierry Breton and Didier Reynders to discuss the potential of e-health in limiting the spread of the virus, including contact tracing apps, remote consultations and telemedicine.

During the debate behind closed doors, these tools were widely recognised as crucial in helping to protect EU citizens as restrictive measures are being relaxed and economies re-started safely and sustainably, an EU source informed

According to Kyriakides, the potential of digital data in healthcare has never been more evident than it is today, as aggregated and anonymised data on population movements can help predict the spread of COVID-19, evaluate the effectiveness of public health policies and support the delivery of critical services.

However, she also stressed that these digital devices must comply with EU fundamental rights and data protection rules. “These rules are a global gold standard, and they are also flexible enough to allow us to make use of digital technologies in our response to the pandemic while protecting fundamental rights and freedoms,” she said.

On 8 April, the Commission adopted a recommendation to support de-escalation strategies using mobile data and applications and a week after a common EU toolbox on mobile applications to support contact tracing was also published.

Kyriakides urged ministers to follow this guidance as it sets the foundations for a pan-European approach, which will also be regularly updated with new findings and developments.

EU data watchdog pitches pan-European COVID-19 app  

The EU should establish its own “pan-European COVID-19 mobile application” due to divergences in current app developments across the bloc, the EU’s data watchdog has suggested.

For the Commission, mobile apps can play a crucial role in breaking transmission chains allowing for easier, quicker and more efficient contact tracing than traditional systems based on interviews with infected patients.

Warning apps too can alert citizens of infection risks and inform them if they have been in contact with a person infected with COVID-19, helping facilitate the organisation of medical follow-ups.

However, representatives from the EU agency for infectious diseases (ECDC), emphasised that digital applications are always a support tool and cannot replace the core of the medical work, which is made up of normal investigations and testing.

According to sources, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders focused his intervention on building public trust in digital tools.

Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton updated the ministers on ongoing talks with businesses to coordinate the development and the use of these tools but he also urged the member states to work together on digital and traditional tracing methods.

Many member states said they are either developing or thinking of introducing digital tools in their fight against the pandemic. Those include Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Estonia and Austria, but also non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Norway which were invited to the meeting.

Some ministers underlined the importance of interoperability of the apps, particularly when citizens are travelling abroad.

Croatia, Poland, Finland and Spain said they are using a COVID-19 self-assessment application that helps citizens evaluate their state of health and which advises them on what to do.

Austria is using a tracing app developed by the Red Cross that allows people to track who they have been in contact with, which sends a notification if one of their contacts has contracted the virus.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

Subscribe to our newsletters